John Wolff's Web Museum

The "Celestina" Organette

Celestina Organette The 20-note "Celestina" organette was produced by the Munroe Organ Reed Company and mass-marketed by the Mechanical Orguinette Company (later The Aeolian Organ and Music Company) during the 1880s and 90s. The same or similar instruments were produced and sold by several other companies in the USA and England. In 1885 the Mechanical Orguinette Company alone sold over 10,000 Celestinas at a list price of $25 each, or about $2000 in today's money.

The 20-note organette is a considerable improvement over the 14-note instruments, both mechanically and musically. Rather than using the paper tune sheet as a valve to admit air to the reeds, the Celestina uses a set of conventional reed-organ pallet valves operated by tiny pneumatic motors (miniature bellows), which in turn are operated by much smaller holes in the tune sheet. The more complex mechanism allows the 20 notes to be recorded on a paper roll that is only 5-1/2" wide. The rolls are wound on compact wooden spools, and are easily interchanged. The tune catalogue includes a very broad selection of traditional, religious, operatic, popular, music-hall, and military songs.

Here are some short MIDI files which show several quite different styles of 20-note organette arrangements. The sound you hear will depend on how well your computer plays the MIDI "reed organ" patch. Listen to:


Celestina with doors open Celestina with doors open.

The Celestina is a much larger and more substantial instrument than the 14-note organettes. The solid timber case measures 16" wide, 14" deep, and 14" high, and the instrument as a whole weighs just on 20 pounds. The case is decorated with elaborate gold linework on all sides.

The upper section of case opens as shown to install the music roll. The small curved door at the front is normally held closed by a light spring, but can be drawn open to vary the volume while playing. An instruction label is pasted onto the inside of the back, so that it is visible when changing the roll.


Celestina decoration Celestina decoration 1.

The Celestina casework was extensively decorated with elaborate gold linework in a variety of geometric patterns.

This (slightly enhanced) illustration shows one common form of decoration on the back panel. The central motif is repeated on the side panels, with even more elaborate borders. The front and top of the case are decorated in a similar style.


Celestina name on case Celestina decoration 2.

The Celestina name is printed on the outside of the top door in a large decorated font with elaborate borders.


Mechanical Orguinette Company name Celestina decoration 3.

The Mechanical Orguinette Company name is printed on the inside of the top door in a very distinctive font. Later models show the name of the Aeolian Organ and Music Company.


Celestina mechanism (front) Celestina mechanism - front view

This view shows a Celestina mechanism removed from its case. The black bellows at the bottom form the suction reservoir or "equaliser". The reservoir is held open by two strong (8lb) internal springs, and closes as the air is pumped out by the red pumping bellows (or "exhausters") at the rear. A relief valve is provided on the underside of the reservoir.

The shallow rectangular box above the reservoir is the windchest, containing the pallet valves and their operating pneumatics. The top surface of windchest forms the soundboard. The block containing the 20 reeds is mounted to the top of the soundboard, just behind the cover strip with the long horizontal slot.

The music roll clips into place at the front of the transport mechanism. The paper passes from the underside of the roll, over a "tracker bar" which reads the holes, then onto the underside of the take-up spool at the rear.


Celestina reed block and reeds Celestina reed block and reeds

This view shows part of the wooden block which holds the 20 brass reeds. The reed cells are individually sized and shaped to suit the pitch of the note. The lowest and highest reeds are shown removed at the front. To the left is a "reed hook" for withdrawing the reeds from their cells. The reed hook is supplied with the machine, and is normally held in a wooden clip on the left-hand side of the spoolbox.


Celestina mechanism (rear) Celestina mechanism - rear view

This rear view shows the three pumping bellows or "exhausters" and their connection to the crankshaft. Two metal stays pass between the exhausters to support the rear of the windchest. At the upper left is the roll drive and rewind mechanism.

To play the Celestina, the winding handle is pushed inwards to engage with the crankshaft, and is turned clockwise at a constant rate. The normal cranking speed is about 120 RPM, or 2 turns per second. The crankshaft operates the exhausters to supply the suction, and pulls the tune sheet onto the take-up spool via a spring-belt drive and an intermediate gear.

To re-wind the roll, the take-up spool is first lifted away from the driving gear, either by turning a small eccentric lever on the driving side of the take-up spool, or by tilting the entire transport mechanism in some later models. The winding handle is then pulled outwards to engage with the large rewind pulley and the long spring belt at the far left. The handle is again turned clockwise to wind the roll back onto the original spool.


Inside the Celestina windchest. Inside the Celestina windchest.

Rather than using the paper tune sheet as a valve to admit air to the reeds, the Celestina uses conventional reed-organ pallet valves operated by tiny pneumatic bellows. This view of the inside of the windchest shows the 20 long pallet valves and their torsion springs. Four of the pallets have been removed to show the operating pneumatics. The pallet pneumatics are 3-1/2" long and 5/8" wide, and open to 1/2". Much of the length of the pneumatic is hidden under the bar which supports the pallet springs. Four of the reeds are visible through the round-ended slots in the soundboard.

The windchest is normally under a constant suction of about 3 to 5 inches of water, or about 1/8 of a pound per square inch. The springs keep the pallets closed and prevent air from entering. When a hole passes over the tracker bar, it opens an internal passage to the corresponding pneumatic. Air is sucked in through the tracker bar and into the pneumatic, causing it to inflate and lift the pallet. This opens a much larger path to the reed cell through the round-ended slots. Atmospheric air is then drawn in through the reed to produce the sound.

When the tracker hole closes, the pallet spring pushes the pallet and the pneumatic shut. The air trapped inside the pneumatic is expelled through the small hole in the white paper bleed disc.

There is a very delicate balance between the windchest suction, the atmospheric pressure, the area of the pallet valve opening, the tension of the pallet return springs, and the size of the bleed hole. When properly restored and adjusted, the mechanism is capable of quite a fast and responsive action.


Celestina music rolls The Celestina music roll

This illustration shows an original Celestina roll from the 1880s and one of my home-made reproductions. The rolls are wound on wooden spools about 6" long and 1-1/2" diameter. There is a short half-round pin at the driving end, and a plain steel pin at the other.

The music that is preserved on these organette rolls gives a window into what life was like for ordinary folk in the 1880s and 90s. There were military songs and marches, traditional songs, tunes from stage shows, comic songs from the music halls, sad songs which reflected the hardship of the times, and lots of politically incorrect songs. There were dance tunes, some in long-forgotten styles, for Saturday entertainment at home, and hymns for church on Sunday. It was too early to find ragtime or jazz on organette rolls, but the Italian operas from the 1850s were still very popular, and Gilbert & Sullivan's were the latest hits.

A typical roll plays for about 3 to 6 minutes. Most "popular" rolls contain several short tunes of about a minute each. Some hymn rolls contain multiple verses, while rolls intended for dancing contain just a single full-length piece. There are a few larger dance rolls that can play an entire Quadrille in about 10 or 12 minutes.

The prices marked on the original rolls range from about 60 cents to $1.20, or roughly 20 cents for each minute of music. Tradesmen's wages at the time were only about 20 cents per hour, so a new roll could easily cost most of a day's pay.


Celestina tune sheet The Celestina tune sheet

This illustration shows the beginning of an original Celestina tune sheet in "piano roll" view, ie, progressing left to right, with the bass notes at the bottom.

The Celestina plays 20 notes from Ab (G#) to F (MIDI notes 44 to 77), but, like most small organs, it does not have a full chromatic scale.
The actual notes are: G# C# D# F# G# A# C C# D D# E F F# G G# A# C C# D# F
or, transposed up 4 semitones: C F G Bb C D E F F# G Ab A Bb B C D E F G A

The music roll is nominally 5-1/2" wide, with the paper about 1/32" narrower. The paper is around 0.003" thick, and travels at 5 feet per minute (1 inch per second). A standard roll spool of 1-1/2" diameter can hold about 30 feet of paper and play for a maximum of 6 minutes.

The note perforations are arranged on 1/4" centres across the width of the paper. The punches are 0.150" wide (same as the tracker bar slot) and 0.095" long. The step advance of the original perforators was 0.075" (ie, half the slot width), giving an overlap of 0.020" on continuous slots. The "scallops" between successive punch strikes are (just) visible in the illustration. This march tune is perforated at 6 punch steps per beat.


Celestina prior to restoration Restoration.

Not all Celestinas have been preserved in the same condition as the examples above. Although they were treasured posessions in the 1880s, many such instruments were consigned to the barn (or the bonfire) when their owners "updated" to a gramophone or a radio. The instrument opposite is shown in the condition in which it was retrieved from under a house, where it had been stored undisturbed for more than 50 years. The glued joints have failed, most of the softwood timber in the mechanism has been destroyed by borers, but the hardwood case panels are in good condition under all the mud and leaves. The metal parts (including the reeds) were in good restorable condition and have cleaned up well. Even the music has been recovered from the remains of the roll - it was a selection from The Mikado, which was immensely popular when first produced in 1885. It would have delighted the owners when this instrument was new.

Construction of an (almost) entirely new mechanism to replace the borer-damaged components was completed during 2016, and the instrument is once again delighting its listeners.


Original text and images Copyright © John Wolff 2003-17.
Last Updated: 5 March 2017
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